Executive produced by Kate McKinnon, the series does have one particular stance in that it’s more about a balanced view of Carole Baskin, who was met with misogynist memes (“that bitch Carole Baskin”) after the series premiere, essentially blaming the victim. McKinnon has prepared a rich impression of Baskin, and this show gives us numerous opportunities to watch her relish the shot—to see her eyes widen, her body stiffen in shots made with a wide-angle lens. But “Joe vs. Carole” also makes ample space for empathy too, as this series wants to reckon with the serious passion she has for the protection of big cats, making her a begrudging enemy of people like Joe Exotic and Doc Antle. Not for nothing, it wants to give us a little more understanding of her loving relationship with her husband Howard (played by Kyle MacLachlan, who like many others seems to be having a lot of fun with the role).
It’s when the show focuses on Joe Exotic, played here with commendable chutzpah from John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) that “Joe vs. Carole” shows its limits as a type of reenactment clip show, giving us different key moments we remember from the Netflix documentary that proverbially owns this story, and has the pandemic phenomenon to claim it. If you wanted to imagine what Joe Exotic’s double wedding was like to Travis Maldonado (Nat Wolff) and John Finlay (Sam Keeley), “Joe vs. Carole” does it for you. The same with the moment in which Saff (Lex Mayson) has their arm ripped off in the cage. There are so many moments in the story that are indeed strange, that add to the dramatic arc that has made it fascinating back in 2020, but they are presented in such a way that is mighty airless.
It might sound strange to claim this, but I do not believe that this series was made with ill-intent. The filmmaking is not shallow—it can have some inspired, immersive usage of angles and framing—and the performances themselves are not lifeless, even if they’re playing something straight that was originally sold to us like a reality-altering joke. It would be entirely believable if “Joe vs. Carole” was conceived and produced while trying to forget that the documentary exists, that it got there first. Only, that’s the problem with such unforgettable events, as in this saga. Viewers don’t forge, even if a show like “Joe vs. Carole” reminds them of its many eccentric moments. But why would you patronize something that now feels like a knock-off, when you can enjoy more from the real thing?
Six episodes screened for review. All episode of “Joe vs. Carole” are now playing on Peacock.